— Long before Jan. 1, I'm willing to bet, you won't be able to tell one college football game from another. The slow drip of death by bowl game began just after Halloween, as I recall. At least it seemed like we were still carving pumpkins when Wake Forest and Navy hunkered down for the highly-anticipated EagleBank Bowl.
Even more ghoulish, the bowl season doesn't end until Jan. 8 (yes, 2009) when Florida faces Oklahoma in Miami, just hours before scores of pitchers and catchers storm across the state for the start of spring training.
Want to get away?
When it's football bowl season, count me among those who want to get far, far away.
For the second New Year's Day in a row, and I suspect for quite a few more, the NHL has provided us with the perfect TV monotony-buster in the form of its outdoor Winter Classic. This Jan. 1, Wrigley Field is the venue, with the hometown Chicago Blackhawks taking on the Detroit Red Wings in what is officially game No. 554 of the 2008-'09 NHL regular season. Start time: 1 p.m. (ET) on NBC.
The Jan. 1, 2008 game was played at Ralph Wilson Stadium in East Aurora, N.Y., just south of Buffalo, and Mother Nature proved she had way better things to do than munch corn chips and watch over bowl games. As if on cue, or at least as if ordered by a NBC-TV producer, the skies over Lake Erie dumped a storybook motherlode of snow over the venue much of the morning and throughout the afternoon.
The Sabres and Penguins, many of them multimillionaires, played through the elements all day, turning just another regular-season afternoon game into an enchanting tableau that looked as if it had been shipped straight from Santa's workshop (do not open 'til New Year's Day).
The NHL always will be challenged to bring in big TV numbers in the U.S. Try as it might, it just won't ever be considered much more than the illegitimate son of the sports viewing industry. Tell that to a few Canadians (and there aren't many more than a few Canadians, anyway?), and they'll likely threaten never to let it snow again south of Toronto or Calgary. That's OK. We can get them back by promising never to consider the Blue Jays part of the great American pasttime.
The Winter Classic, in fact, produced a very strong rating's number (again, it's hockey) for the game at the Ralph. I suspect it will do even better this time, due in part to America's fascination with old baseball parks. Wrigley is a great setting, in one of America's top cities. For those who know a little about hockey, the Hawks and Wings are two of the NHL's oldest clubs, commonly referred to as Original Six squads — relating to a time when they were part of tiny, quaint league that also included only Montreal, Boston, New York and Toronto.
Those Original Six days, which had clubs routinely traveling city to city by train, are long gone. The NHL is a 30-team big-business venture nowadays, with annual gross revenues of some $2.5 billion. True, on a national level Americans don't eat it up or tune it in like football or basketball, but about two-thirds of the 24 U.S.-based rinks run near capacity for 41 home games. Across the border, the six Canadian cites routinely bang out every game, which makes them a winter a classic starting the first week of October every year and ending long after snowmelt.
The delightful part about the Winter Classic is that you don't have to be a hockey fan to enjoy it. If it snows — and let's hope it does — it makes not only for a more interesting and challenging game because of the ''slower'' ice, but it also makes for just a better overall look. And as we all now, TV is all about look.
When I watched the snow fall in western New York this past Jan. 1, I realized how the XFL (remember that boffo success?) so badly missed the mark in attempting to hook a new viewing audience. If you really want to get Americans to watch ''different'' sports TV, equip all those outdoor football stadia with snow-making machinery and get the white stuff blowing well in advance of the opening kickoff, then dial it up to the ''white-out'' level with that first boot of the ball. Oh, yeah. Now that's football.
The Winter Classic is best served under a snowy blanket. No question. If you love the game, the snowflakes aren't necessary, but a steady snow makes it all the better. The faces of the Sabres and Penguins players were painted with a perpetual smile as they played through it last time, as were the faces of the 60,000-plus in the Ralph's stands. For those of us who grew up playing the game outside, needing first to shovel off the spot on the pond where we intended to play, it was an enchanting walk down memory lane, without the need to coax our cranky backs back into upright, working order.
The NHL isn't going to turn the Winter Classic in a Super Bowl-like television ratings success. It really isn't about the game itself, who wins, or the various storylines of the individual players, their struggles, or the history of the teams.
But in a time when so much of what we watch on TV seems so predictable, and so polished, and so ordinary, the Winter Classic is anything but that. It takes an indoor game that was born in the wild, dating back to when it was played on wooden clogs that had dull steel blades running down the middle, and brings it back outside for a breath of fresh air.
Breathe deep. Expand your lungs. Use your imagination. Even if you're in Paris, Texas, or Sacramento, Calif., or Tallahassee, Fla., think how that wintry, chilled air seems to freeze your ribcage, and take a long look at the mirror finish of that rink. If it doesn't make you want to grab a stick, it's guaranteed to make you want to wrap your hands around a mug of hot chocolate.
Uh-uh, don't even try. You can't top that for New Year's Day.
A: It sure has been a while, hasn't it, Paul? The 'Nucks have missed the postseason outright in two of the past three seasons and have won only a pair of first-round sets since facing the Rangers in the 1994 Cup finals.
Sundin, hired just before Christmas for $5.6 million for the balance of this season, has the skill and pedigree to provide a real booster shot to the Vancouver offense. Their goal scoring dipped to 213 last season, in part why Dave Nonis lost his job as general manager. The 'Nucks have arguably the game's best goaltender in Roberto Luongo — the key behind the club allowing only 215 goals last year — but all that sound puck stopping didn't mean much when his teammates shot the puck as if they were facing Luongo every night in the other net.
All that said, no one knows if Sundin, destined to be a Hall of Famer, can pick up where he left off. In other words, over a half season, can he contribute upwards of 15 goals and 40 points, his typical pace over his past half-dozen years or more with the Maple Leafs? I hate to say it, Paul, but I have my doubts. Sundin will be 38 in February and he is stepping back into the world's fastest league with everyone else at mid-season form. Tough time to jump in to the race when everyone else's pulse rate is already accelerated.
I'm sure Vancouver will give their prized catch ample time to get his legs going and their decent showing here in the first half takes some of the pressure off of Sundin to start putting up the points immediately. If he can stay healthy, and if he can keep the pace, I still don't see him getting getting his new team beyond a second-round showing in the East.
A: Lemieux, age 43, played his last game with the Dallas Stars in 2002-'03, but he decided over the summer, while home in the Phoenix area, that he would like to take another run at the show. Hey, with Chris Chelios to turn 47 this January, a young guy like Lemieux certainly can dream the dream.
At last look, Brian, Lemieux's numbers were only mediocre — two goals and five points in 12 games. However, if you followed him in his prime, especially his days in New Jersey, you'll remember that his true value went beyond his points (1,197 games/785 points). He was an agitator, a pest, and unlike many of those other surly guys, he could back it up with a timely goal or find a way to get one of the opponent's best players off his game.
When I went to see Lemieux in late November, soon after his arrival with the AHL Sharks (San Jose's No. 1 affiliate), he was confident that he could be back in the NHL in very short order. He didn't attach a timeline to his dream, but it sounded as if he felt a 2-3 week refresher course would do the trick. But when the NHL's annual holiday roster freeze was imposed Dec. 19, he was still in Worcester, still 43, and still without a dance partner anywhere in the Original 30.
Keep in mind, the only deal Lemieux has, including the $18-a-day meal money, is with the AHL Sharks. If anyone in the NHL wants him, he is here for the taking. I bet someone clinging to the hope of landing one of the last playoff seeds gives him a shot. It will be for very short money (a prorated $500,000), and if factor what they'll be paying him by the word (like a freelance writer), they'll be getting the bargain of a lifetime.